Power to the people
San Francisco Community Power (SF Power) has been in the business of community engagement for nearly a decade, since it first collaborated with other environmental groups and low-income families to shut down a dirty power plant located in their backyard. Today, the non-profit provides a range of services to help low-income households and small businesses conserve water, lower their energy bills and reduce their carbon footprint.
Over the past couple of years, Veritable Vegetable, Alonzo Printing and Pet Camp have participated in a demand-response program created and managed by SF Power. Under the program, when the state calls an energy alert day—typically during the hottest summer days when temperatures soar and millions of buildings use more air-conditioning—participants are asked to reduce electricity use for several hours by switching off appliances, turning up the thermostat, dimming lights, keeping refrigeration units closed and deferring production. Those that comply receive cash for helping the state avoid outages.
Shortly after launching the program, SF Power noticed that the participating businesses not only successfully reduced their energy use during peak hours, but also lowered their demand in the “shoulder” periods both before and after the official energy alert hours. This demand shift saved the companies money and presented an opportunity to create more environmental benefits.
“We found that small businesses are open, even eager, to adopting more sustainable practices,” said SF Power’s Executive Director Steven Moss. “It’s just that nobody has taken the time to offer them specific things they can do in a language they can understand.”
SF Power began to investigate other areas in which businesses might be able to save money and reduce energy and water use, thereby producing environmental benefits. For each kilowatt saved, less diesel or natural gas is needed to produce energy. But there are also substantial climate benefits from reducing water use, switching transportation modes and utilizing more eco-friendly products.
Last year, SF Power joined with Environmental Defense Fund to pilot a comprehensive project to identify and address all of the various activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions in a community. While the actions taken by a single household or business may have limited effect on global warming, an entire network of families and firms presents enormous opportunities for aggregated, community-wide reductions that have real significance. As a result, Climate for Community was born.
The Climate for Community concept is simple. Provide a community of households and small businesses access to information about energy-saving technologies, efficient transportation options, greener consumer purchases, and helping them find ways to adopt the activities that best fit their needs. Businesses such as Veritable Vegetable, Alonzo Printing, and Pet Camp had already demonstrated the tremendous potential for achieving substantial reductions while improving their bottom lines. If others did the same, small actions would add up to big impacts.
“Markets respond to consumers. Politicians respond to voters,” said Moss. “Climate change will be solved by all of us working together. Aggregating small emissions sources into tradable packages can create access to economic and environmental assets that will otherwise remain outside the policy equation,” said Moss.
SF Power has taken the Climate for Community concept to low-income families as well. To date, SF Power has visited more than 100 low-income households in San Francisco. Participants are provided with a climate change audit and given a reusable canvas shopping bag filled with environmentally friendly goodies, including a compact fluorescent light bulb, power strip, low-flow sink faucet, reusable stainless steel water bottle, eco-friendly hand sanitizer and household cleaner, light switch motion sensor and Kill-a-Watt meter to measure how much electricity a given appliance uses.
When the kit is delivered, a trained auditor makes a note of how old major appliances are, asks questions about driving habits and provides a fact sheet offering tips and identifying available government and utility rebates for greener living.
This grassroots effort is bringing climate change know-how to communities that are typically hard–to-reach. By knocking on doors, the SF Power audit team is educating community members and beginning a conversation about how to take local action on climate change.
The role of households and businesses in poorer neighborhoods has often been neglected, yet they are critical players in finding sustainable solutions to global warming.
Ultimately, communities of all types must be engaged in dynamic, economic and environmentally sustainable approaches that improve their lives and the planet’s health.
“Low income families and small businesses are last in line for the latest light bulb, refrigerator, or car, but they’ll be first in line to feel the consequences of climate change and associated policies: higher energy prices, heat waves, rising shorelines,” said Moss. “The only way we’re going to solve this problem is by approaching it one neighborhood at a time and giving residents and businesses the knowledge and tools to make a positive difference.”
National advocacy, local action
With a new administration in the White House and federal economic stimulus dollars on the way, an innovative tone has been set for tackling many of our most pressing problems. At the same time, federal climate legislation is moving to the forefront of conversations inside and outside the environmental community.
Climate for Community and similar programs offer a path to move beyond the debate and into the realm of action where real people take real actions to reduce their environmental impact and improve their economic conditions. What’s more, it provides an opportunity for those disadvantaged communities that suffer from the worst pollution to take part in and benefit from greenhouse gas reduction programs.
As Veritable Vegetable, Alonzo Printing, and Pet Camp have demonstrated, taking action can be profitable and a boon to the planet’s health. Reducing waste, saving electricity, using fewer toxic chemicals and driving less is better for business and the environment.
There are a variety of policy approaches that can be used to inspire community-scale actions, especially in our most vulnerable communities. The Climate for Community program is demonstrating how even the little guys – small businesses and households – can be inspired to act and be rewarded for doing so.
Since isolated actions aren’t enough, we need communities banding together to demand change in their neighborhoods, constructing a stage where everyone can play a part. It’s not just about “green businesses”, it’s about greening all businesses. Your local grocer, high school or apartment complex can help solve the climate problem too. All that’s lacking is the knowledge and the tools to transform crisis into opportunity.
Any sound climate policy must empower everyday people to fight global warming. Investing in our communities can be one of the greatest forms of climate protection where we think globally and act locally.
Climate & Air Program
James “Jamie” Fine is an economist and policy scientist working on state-based initiatives to address global warming.
His areas of research and advocacy include design and implementation of cap-and-trade and other market-based policy, modeling the economic, air quality, and health risks of policy decisions, and facilitating the meaningful involvement of public stakeholders in environmental planning.
For more information, visit the following websites:
Climate for Community – www.edf.org/C4C
Environmental Defense Fund – www.edf.org
San Francisco Community Power – www.sfpower.org
Veritable Vegetable – www.veritablevegetable.com
Alonzo Printing – www.alonzoprinting.com
Pet Camp – www.petcamp.com
Paper Calculator – www.papercalculator.org
Big Ass Fans – www.bigassfans.com
Kill-a-Watt - www.p3international.com/products/special/P4400/P4400-CE.html